October 30, 2012
Who can resist the thrill of fear? We imagine that hotels and churches are haunted, and we love to believe it when locals tell us that witches, werewolves and the undead lurk in the nearby woods. And though these legends and rumors often terrify us, and though our instincts tell us to run, curiosity kills the cat—and we often go tiptoeing into the tombs, graveyards and forests of our nightmares. This Halloween, indulge in the nerve-zapping thrill of being afraid, and consider visiting these real-life destinations of ghostly legends and dark history:
The Blair Witch Forest. The Blair Witch Project, that terrifying low-budget cult film of 1999, reminded millions that we may have nothing to fear in a dark and gloomy forest but our own imaginations. The movie never showed a single image of ghouls or supernatural forces, yet it scared some of us almost to death and ruined camping for the rest of the summer. The story follows three film students into the rural backwoods of Maryland to interview locals on-camera and explore the dark forests as they documented a local legend about the so-called Blair Witch. They never caught the mean old lady on film, but she began visiting them each evening after they retired to their tent, and, night by night, turned the expedition into a nightmare. The film was partially shot in the real-life town of Burkittsville. If you go, you won’t be the first, as countless film buffs and Blair Witch believers have already swarmed this little hamlet of 200. Instead of bugging the locals, who have had to replace their town sign several times in the wake of film-fan thievery, take a walk in the nearby woods after dark—and try not to panic. No—that’s not a witch in the woods behind you; worse, it’s your own imagination. Perhaps camp out in order to get the full Burkittsville experience, and before you go be sure and watch the movie.
The mummies of Guanajuato. Around 1865, the local government in the town of Guanajuato, in the mountains of central Mexico, decided to begin collecting a cemetery tax from relatives of the deceased. Bodies of families unable to pay were exhumed—and some, it turned out, had been naturally preserved in the awkward poses of death. These were placed in storage—and they became, gradually, a draw for curious visitors. So was born Guanajuato’s famed mummy museum. The assembly of the dried-out dead features more than 100 bodies displayed behind glass, where they grimace unhappily at about a million tourists per year—people with that familiar urge to see up close the feared but fascinating face of death. Visitors to Guanajuato should be warned that the mummy museum is not an attraction for the timid—or one to treat irreverently. The bodies are of real people who died only several generations ago and, in some cases, may even have been buried alive. Scientists have speculated how the bodies became mummified. Some have suggested that high mineral content in the soil preserved them, while others believe the mummies are simply the result of a warm and dry climate.
The Capuchin Catacombs of Sicily. On one wall of the Capuchin Catacombs in Palermo, Italy, are deceased men, on another women, and another children. Still other chambers feature virgins, priests, monks and professionals, many preserved in varying states of life-like quality. This resting place of some 8,000 people was born in the 1500s when the cemetery serving the local Capuchin monastery ran out of bunk space, requiring the monks to dig out a new tomb to lay their dead. The chambers were originally meant to serve only friars, but the Palermo catacombs eventually expanded operations to include members of the public, whose families paid fees for the housing of their dead loved ones. Like many catacombs around the world, this communal tomb is not just a burial site but a place intended for preservation and display. The monks dried the bodies on racks, applied vinegar, glycerine and other chemical preservatives, and dressed the corpses in various styles of clothing. Fees from living families helped maintain the collection. Today, tourists may—if they wish—descend from the idyllic, sunny streets of Sicily’s chief city and go underground to meet the dead. Other catacombs of the world include those of Vienna, Granada, Melbourne, Lima and Paris. In the latter, sub-city tunnels have been filled with bones, and urban legends tell of tourists who have become lost in the maze-like corridors, which go on for hundreds of miles. The moral: Don’t ditch your tour guide.
The Hotel of The Shining. It was during Stephen King’s 1974 visit to the Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, Colorado, that the story of The Shining was born. The author, who stayed in Room 217 with his wife, reportedly saw fleeting images of children in the hallways of the mountain lodge, and these flights of imagination eventually unraveled into the story, and psychological turmoil, of his most famous book and the 1980 movie that followed. The film, however, was shot at other locations—including the Timberline Lodge near Mount Hood, Oregon, where the fictional Overlook Hotel’s exterior shots were taken. The Timberline’s hotel managers, who granted director Stanley Kubrick permission to film onsite, worried that tourists might be scared away from staying the night, so they asked that the director edit his script to make the haunted Room 217 into the nonexistent Room 237.
Alcatraz Island. It was once a nest of thieves, but today, according to the legends and local lore that shroud “The Rock,” America’s most infamous historic prison is a den of ghouls. Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay was first documented by Europeans in 1775 when Spaniard Juan Manuel de Ayala named the 22-acre, guano-frosted outcropping “Island of the Pelicans.” In 1845 the American government bought the island, which would serve as a cannon-studded fort and a military prison. Then, in 1934, the convicts came to stay, and for the next three decades the worst of America’s murderers and gangsters paid their dues and, sometimes, died here. One prisoner was supposedly found strangled to death in isolation cell 14D, and it is said that moans and cries still echo from the chamber. And though Al Capone died at his Florida mansion, his ghost is said to haunt the prison where he spent four and a half years. Capone reportedly took up the banjo at Alcatraz, and off-key twangs are sometimes heard today, according to employees and park rangers at what has become a national historic monument. Tourists may visit the island for self-guided daytime tours, while evening walks through the jail require a guide, who is sure to be well-versed in ghost stories of Alcatraz Island.
The Abandoned Villages of Chios. Guided ghost walks show visitors through the haunted districts of many cities, including New Orleans, Philadelphia and London, but for a ghost experience completely off the charted tourist path, go straight to the Greek island of Chios. Here, blue waters and tavernas on the beach draw crowds of sun-seeking Germans and Britons—but a darker history seems to lurk in Chios’ remote mountains. For as the island develops into a summer and fall tourist hotspot, it has left behind numerous villages, where abandoned homes stare from the dry slopes like so many skulls half buried in the earth. Anavatos is the most famous vacant village—and now a national historic site. And a number of empty villages seem to have no names at all—and good luck finding them. But Potamia in the island’s northeast is among the few abandoned towns that remain on the maps. A cluster of decaying old homes with broken out windows, like eye sockets, and crumbling doorways, Potamia is accessible by goat trails and can be reached by hikers and bikers with a hankering for the rare and stomach-fluttering feeling of exploring a whole town with not a soul—or at least not a person—in it. Walking through the slumping dirt streets, one may wonder where once was the bakery, the butcher, the school, and the chapel. You don’t believe it’s haunted? Neither did I when I visited several years ago—but try camping alone here on a full moon, and see if you don’t leave in the morning howling a different tune.
For further reading, check out Smithsonian‘s list of “Real Places Behind Famously Frightening Stories.” Of note are the castles that inspired Bram Stoker’s Dracula, the Sleepy Hollow cemetery and the steep, low-lit stairway featured in The Exorcist.
July 27, 2012
So many places to go, and so many books to read—and so we continue last week’s list with more suggestions of great books to read, and the best places to read them.
Cameroon, The Innocent Anthropologist. When a pragmatic English scientist meets the superstitions and seeming simplicity of a rural people in Cameroon, multicultural comedy unfurls. So it goes for Nigel Barley as he struggles to interpret the ways of the gregarious, beer-brewing Dowayo tribe, whose friendliness both hinders and helps Barley as he conducts his doctoral research. The story is told from the grad student’s discerning but patient point of view—and the reader who takes this book onto a crowded subway train may fall into helpless fits of giggling as one set of cultural norms runs head-on into the other. No matter; keep reading. Watch for the episode in which Barley, after being informed of yet another setback in a long string of bureaucratic hassles over visas and research funding, glumly takes a seat on a fence post to ponder his uncertain future in academia. Promptly, a local man rushes over with sincere concern to tell Barley that he mustn’t sit on a fence, which will draw vitamins from a body and cause illness. Barley, who had for months displayed an admirable show of patience for the Dowayos’ superstitions, blows his lid, ranting and ridiculing their beliefs. But if we’re to ever learn anything from the science of anthropology, it’s that the watched may also be the watcher—and to the Dowayo, this English white man scribbling in notebooks, eating chicken eggs, sitting on fence posts and having causeless tantrums is probably as inexplicable as they are to Barley. For further reading about Central Africa, The Poisonwood Bible, Barbara Kingsolver’s 1998 bestseller, takes us to the Belgian Congo in 1959, where a determined Baptist missionary named Nathan Price has brought his wife and four daughters. As in The Mosquito Coast, the Americans’ life in the steamy jungle dissolves and is bound for tragedy, while Price’s mind deteriorates.
Alaska, Into the Wild. Beyond the cruise ship and tour bus routes, nearly every traveler in Alaska has come there, in part, to face-off with extreme adventure and virgin wilderness—to be in a place whose rugged beauty goes hand in hand with unforgiving danger. And so went Chris McCandless almost 20 years ago to Alaska, after months spent adventuring in the lower 48 and Mexico, as he sought to break the social contract and connect with nature and with himself. Into the Wild, by Jon Krakauer, tells the famous story of McCandless’ abandonment of society, his adoption of the pseudonym Alex Supertramp and his grand finale in America’s greatest, or most terrible, wilderness. Here, McCandless runs out of food on the wrong side of a high-running river. Though he subsists by shooting small game and picking berries, he slowly loses weight—and eventually McCandless dies in the harsh world he had pursued as a sort of Eden. For further reading, To the Top of Denali describes the most terrifying and disastrous attempts to climb North America’s tallest mountain—a four-mile-high peak that may dazzle its admirers from afar but could claim their lives if they attempted to hike to its summit.
The Grand Tetons and Yellowstone National Park, Biography of a Grizzly. Published in 1899, Ernest Seton Thompson’s illustrated novella, The Biography of a Grizzly, was one of the first expressions of compassion for what was at the time among the most hated beasts of the Wild West. The book details the life of Wahb, a grizzly born in Wyoming in the late 1800s, when Euro-Americans were at work conquering the West and driving the grizzly bear toward regional extinction. We are introduced to Wahb as a 1-year-old cub, when he and his siblings are still learning the ways of the wilderness—such as how to catch giant buffalo fish in streams and make a meal of an anthill. Then, as the bears pass a warm afternoon in a grassy meadow, bullets begin to fly. All the bears are downed by the distant sharpshooter—except for Wahb, who scurries into the woods, his family dead and he wounded in both flesh and spirit. Embittered with a hatred of people and distrust of the world, Wahb survives—and in spite of bullying by coyotes and black bears, he grows up. He quickly outsizes all his enemies, and he becomes the biggest, kingliest grizzly in the mountains. He can smash logs to pieces with one swipe of his giant paw, and can pull steel-jawed bear traps off his paws like clothespins. The story easily evokes the beauty of the Grand Tetons and the high plains of Yellowstone, but the reader senses a dark future, and the Biography of a Grizzly ultimately calls for a box of tissue paper. For time, and the encroach of mankind, will be Wahb’s doom.
The High Arctic, Never Cry Wolf. It is 1948, and a decline in the caribou population of the Canadian Arctic has spurred government action, and a young biologist named Farley Mowat is assigned to study the region’s wolves, verify that they have played a role in obliterating the great migrating herds and effectively give the Canadian Department of the Interior the green light to cull their numbers. But Mowat, who will become one of North America’s most prominent nature writers, makes a surprising discovery: The wolves are mostly eating mice. Uncertain he can convince his superiors and his critics of such a conclusion without strong evidence, Mowat undertakes to do the same—to subsist, at least for a time, on heaping helpings of one-ounce rodents. Never Cry Wolf is Mowat’s memoir describing his months spent camping on the Arctic tundra, developing a unique friendship with a local wolf community and refining methods and recipes for cooking mice, which infest his tent cabin. The 1983 film version of Mowat’s book brings great comedy to his story but ends with a crushing scene of sport hunters packing wolf pelts into a seaplane as Mowat, played by Charles Martin Smith, looks sullenly on. The plane flies away in a blast of noise and wind, and Mowat is left alone, the wolves he knew dead and gone, and his efforts to exonerate them of wanton caribou-killing seemingly for naught. Critics have questioned Mowat’s integrity as a scientist and as a reliable conveyor of facts—but he tells a good story.
England, Notes From a Small Island. “If you mention in the pub that you intend to drive from, say, Surrey to Cornwall, a distance that most Americans would happily go to get a taco, your companions will puff their cheeks, look knowingly at each other, and blow out air as if to say, ‘Well, now that’s a bit of a tall order’…” So writes Bill Bryson in Chapter 1 of Notes From a Small Island, and though Britons, as he describes them, seem to have no understanding of road-tripping and make a muddy mess of driving directions, the author manages to find his way. And so Bryson tours England, marveling at its ridiculously designed suburbs, its appalling food and the unintentional charm of its people. Bryson proves as he always does in his books: that it’s possible to double over laughing at the cultures and customs of a familiar Western nation. For further reading, Bryson’s Neither Here Nor There is his good-natured laugh-attack of mainland Europe; in In a Sunburned Country, Bryson takes on Australia; and in The Lost Continent, he discovers the absurdities of America.
Other suggestions, briefly:
Italy, The Miracle of Castel di Sangro. Journalist Joe McGinnis takes readers into the mountains of Abruzzo, where a small-town soccer team, through what seems a miracle, ascends into the higher standings of the national soccer leagues—but the great Italian dream crashes amid sour smells of the mafia, cheaters and rats.
Spain, Driving Over Lemons. Author Chris Stewart recounts leaving his life in suburban England for a new one in Andalucia, in southern Spain, where he soaks up the idiosyncrasies and comedy of the region’s friendly but rugged village culture.
California wine country, The Silverado Squatters. In this fast-reading memoir, Robert Louis Stevenson describes his nine weeks of residence in the Napa Valley in the 1880s . The land—wealthy tourist country today—was still frontier country then, and though the wine was still young, it was Stevenson who famously said with foresight “…and the wine is bottled poetry.”
The American Southwest, Desert Solitaire. To bring the desert to life on your next Southwest getaway, pack along a paperback copy of Desert Solitaire—Edward Abbey’s classic eulogy to the canyon lands and mesa country of Utah. Everett Ruess: A Vagabond for Beauty, by W.L. Rusho, may have the same effect. The book tells the famous story of the artist and desert wanderer from Southern California who spent several years developing a fast relationship with some of the wildest country in America before vanishing without a trace in Utah in 1934, when he was only 20.
Greece, The Odyssey. Homer’s most celebrated story brings to life the lands and seas of Greece, depicted then much as they still look and feel today. Whether you’re cycling through Greece’s wild mountains or kayaking along its ragged, rocky coast, you’ll be reminded by a few pages each night of The Odyssey (pick your translation) of the nation’s deep history, and you may never want to quit your travels in this most classic of the world’s landscapes.
Which books did I miss? Name them in the comment box below.
July 10, 2012
There is no fruit quite like a fresh fruit. Picked ripe and eaten immediately, fresh fruits exhibit the vibrant sugars and zesty acids that make them so attractive to foraging creatures and a key element in their evolutionary strategy. But fresh-picked fruit is generally unavailable to most of us. That’s because farmers usually harvest their stone fruits, berries, figs and other delicate seasonals well before they’ve even ripened. Then, the pickings spend a week or more in transit, finally arriving in the grocery store dull as a billy-clubbed mahi mahi, often mushy or pithy and a sad exhibition of their species’ full potential. Even sadder is that fact that we consumers must take what we can get, and we live our lives buying and eating this sub-prime fruit.
Unless, that is, we hit the road and take matters—and super-fresh fruit—into our own hands. All along the roadways of America, and the world, fruit trees grow within reach of passersby, and about now, as summer heats up, these trees are loaded—and their abundant branches are hanging over a fence near you. Here’s a list of best bets for roadside foraging this July:
Loquats. The orange color and the suffix “quat” (think kumquat) lead many people to assume that the loquat is a citrus fruit—but it’s not even related. A native of East Asia and a favorite summer snack in Europe, Japan, Israel and Brazil, the loquat in America is common yet just as obscure. Many homeowners are unaware that the fruits, growing in their own yards, are even edible—which is good news for you and me. That means you can knock on the door, ask permission and, almost without fail, receive the go-ahead to “take all you want.” Some homeowners may appear baffled and say, “Those are edible?” Yes—fantastic, in fact, and surely one of the most under-appreciated garden fruits. When picking loquats, leave a quarter-inch of stem attached to each fruit, which will reduce bruising, and carry them home wrapped in a sweat shirt for padding. Peel the skins and savor the sweet, juicy, zesty flesh. If you have a real bounty to work with, try juicing a portion and making loquat cider.
Avocados. The fact that avocados, one of the most recognized and desired tree fruits, can be had for free along public roadways is simply wonderful. NOTE: This is NOT an invitation to plunder an orchard, which is illegal, taken seriously by Southern California law enforcement agencies and could land you in jail. Rather, this is simply a reminder to cyclists and pedestrians south of Santa Barbara to watch the roadsides for avocado trees, and, when you see one, look to the ground below, or in the culvert along the road. These are the places where ripe avocados go—and if you don’t get them, the rodents will. Avocado trees, happily, fruit almost all year.
Figs. The bulk of the year’s figs arrive in late summer and fall, but many varieties of the fruit produce an early crop, as well—physiologically distinct from the main crop of September. Called the “breba” crop, this first flush of figs usually consists of fewer fruits than the longer-lasting autumn crop—but not always, and in some places, and with certain fig varieties, a bounty of breba figs may weight the tree branches toward the ground. The black mission fig, one of the main commercial and garden varieties of California, produces a heavy breba crop in June and July. So does the desert king, a jammy, juicy green variety. Countless fig trees grow wild or feral along small rural roadways and can be easily and safely accessed. Texas and other states of the South offer good fig-hunting opportunities, too—and Southern Europe is a fig hunter’s heaven, especially in the fall. Breba crop figs grow from the old-growth wood of the previous year, and so they may often be concealed by summer foliage. Push back the leaves and behold the whoppers. Only take them if they’re splitting, sagging and dripping with juices, as figs will not ripen once picked.
Mulberries. An Old World native grown in America largely as a shade tree, the mulberry is a prolific producer and one of the most under-appreciated of tree fruits. Some mulberry varieties are cotton-candy pink, while others are purple, and others jet black—and all, when ripe, are pure sweetness, lacking the tannins that make blackberries and other thorny bush-berries so often bitter and sour. In nations around the Mediterranean, mulberries are loved, cultivated and often eaten dried, like raisins. In many places, fallen mulberries carpet the pavement a half-inch thick during July. In California and the rest of America, most trees are of non-fruiting varieties—often planted along paths and roadways as shade trees—but those bearing berries begin to drop their crop in June. Cyclists have a great advantage in hunting the mulberry, able to cover large distances but moving slowly enough to watch the asphalt; when you see dark stains of splattered fruit on the ground, hit the brakes and look up.
Blackberries. A no-brainer, blackberries are probably America’s favorite wild fruit. The Himalayan blackberry is also one of the most hated invasive species ever to leave its Old World homeland. Introduced in 1885 to Sonoma County by fruit breeder Luther Burbank, the species now grows in wicked bramble patches across the continent, and the world. Road crews and property owners attack the vines with chain saws, but there’s no stopping this thorny invader—and every July and August, it’s pie time. America also has a native blackberry, with gentler thorns than the Himalayan and bearing slender, elongated fruits about a month earlier, beginning in June. Blackberries fall in the genus Rubus, which also includes raspberries, salmonberries and thimbleberries. Blueberries and huckleberries are also a summertime crop, and an easy one to forage.
Wild Plums. Remember the chapter in Michael Pollan’s Botany of Desire when he visits Kazakhstan’s wild apple forests and describes the fantastic abundance and diversity of the fruit, and the forest floor littered with a rainbow-colored layer of apples? Well, in parts of coastal California, the abundance of wild plums is almost as tremendous. Plum trees—growing wild, sprouted from seed—cover mountain slopes and bear fruits of a dozen colors. A quick skirmish with the brambles, and you’re among the trees. Taste through them until you find the best. TIP: You’ll find that the plums fallen and hiding in the grass are exceptionally sweet, ripened by days in the sun. Enjoy them on the spot, or take them home to make jam—or even wine. Planning on going Down Under? Then watch along the roads of New Zealand, where plums grow as wildly as in California.
The Prince Agaricus mushroom. A fungus fruit, the prince is one of the very best edible mushrooms, with a smell and flavor like almond extract that will knock almost any foodie to his knees as he begs you to tell just where you found these incredibly delicious things. Don’t tell—just share, and perhaps offer the basic scoop: The prince, Latin name Agaricus augustus, is a close relative of the cultivated portobello mushroom. Many other species in the genus are good to eat, as well—but the prince is the king. The mushroom is a summer fruiter, often occurring in areas touched by fog drip or in parks wetted by sprinklers. The mushrooms like to grow in disturbed soils—and right beside roadways is a great place to look. I’ve even encountered the prince while cycling through Bulgaria and Greece. Unsure I had met my old friend so far from home, I smelled the cap—and that almond-anise aroma left no doubt. When the mushrooms are barbecued, the sweet juices of the prince come out sizzling. The texture remains firm—never slimy—and the flavor is a knockout. Try dipping prince slices in egg, then sautéing and serving with a drizzle of maple syrup for mushroom French toast. NOTE: Do not forage mushrooms if you don’t know what you’re doing. This blog post is not to be used for identification purposes.
Don’t know where to start? Fallen Fruit serves as a foraging resource and a guide to collecting fruit from public trees in Los Angeles and beyond. Another group, based in the San Francisco Bay Area, calls itself Guerrilla Grafters and stalks the streets, grafting branches of prized fruit varieties onto non-fruit-bearing sidewalk trees with the goal of cultivating a free food resource for public use. How cool is that?